Interview: Cattle Decapitation
All we want is awareness. We’re putting out stuff that seems very exasperated and… I don’t want to say hopeless, but they’re at the end of their rope. Musically and in lyrical themes, that’s what we put out – I don’t know if it translates, if people get that when they are listening or reading lyrics, but it’s definitely a backs-at-the-wall, sword-to-the-throat kind of deal.
There are very few aspects in which Cattle Decapitation don’t just get it right, but instead set the bar. One of the most gifted entities in extreme metal, they’ve pushed socially aware themes in a fashion that not many would dare to attempt in such a reactionary scene, become one of the most savage must-see live acts for indie kids and gore-fiends alike and with Death Atlas, they elevated their songwriting to such lofty heights that they themselves might struggle to overcome it in the future. On a night in late October that saw them simply demolish Glasgow, we spoke to guitarist Josh Elmore to chart their growth and legacy.
E&D: How are you feeling about tonight?
JE: It’s just starting to kick in that it’s time to tour again. We were out this past summer for about a month, then back home for two months. Everyone was kicking around, working, doing whatever they do, so now it’s just getting back into the swing of things.
E&D: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
JE: It depends on the set-up of the venue, where my gear’s set up, things like that. I normally fuck around for 10 or 15 minutes before we play but tonight, my guitar is behind my rig so my warm-up will be about five minutes before we play. Just, “Super intense playing!” If there’s any sort of ritual, in the States, we’ll disperse and one or two people will head off and go have dinner or whatever but here, we’ll normally all head off together for a meal, come back and laze around for a bit. About a third of the way through the band before us, everyone normally comes to life and tries to get the blood going again, feel a little more engaged. That’s about it – no-one’s doing yoga outside or smoking crack. But hey, anyone wants to do that, that’s fine.
E&D: The album will be out next month, and it’s a Black Friday release. Was that intentional on your part?
JE: Well, yes and no. We wanted it to come out earlier but based upon pressing plants, manufacturing restrictions and other releases that it may have conflicted with, worst case scenario was that it would have come out next year. We finished recording this at the end of June, beginning of July so why were we going to wait that long? The other choice was that October is a super-popular time to release a record, November is a little past the arc but just get it in before December and it won’t get lost in the end-of-year jumble. You don’t get on any album of the year lists if you go for that option, it’s just a smear from mid-November on so hopefully that won’t mean our shit gets swept along with all of that. But hey, it was either that or wait until January or February and that was not an option.
E&D: This is the longest gap between albums that you’ve ever had. Was it a painful process to create Death Atlas or was it purely scheduling?
JE: Yeah, it was the schedule. We kept telling ourselves that we’d do it, like at the end of 2017 we said that we’d do something in 2018, of course, but we’re going to take our time this time around as a lot had changed. One new member, another switched out, and we were nervous about time but then we got asked about doing a tour in Japan, and then this, or how about this US tour? Well okay, but we really have to write this record. . . So we started working on it in 2018, and we got maybe three songs in and then there was all this other stuff we had to do. We were home between tours, got another few done, and then it was “Oh crap! Well, we gotta write on the road.” So, we got maybe a song and a half written on the road, but not beginning to end, just each of us having a few riffs and then it starting to come together, jotting it down and then having to work real hard on it when we got back home. At the end of 2018 we had about 8 songs. Our recording was supposed to be at the beginning on April 2019 and it had to get delayed by a month, which isn’t that long but it totally saved us! We always say that we hate to be rushed but the past few records went down to the wire. It’s not comfortable to do but you have to make it work. It’s usually every three years for an album with us and personally I don’t mind that but hopefully it won’t take as long next time.
E&D: Did having the expanded line-up enable you to develop your sound in a way that you hadn’t, or couldn’t, before?
JE: Yeah, we think so. On the recordings, there’s always been tons of layers, ambient and atmospheric stuff. The new record has way more of that too but I had in the past put loads of that stuff out and live it was hard to do. Do you want to do the heavier backing part or do you want the more ambient, hazy stuff? If you go for the ambient stuff, there’s no low end apart from bass but no chunky guitar, and if I go for the chunky guitar then the focus on this higher part, that’s not going to come through at all. With a second guitar player in the band, Belisario writes and contributes, he does other things as well but regardless who’s playing what part, the point and counterpoint can support each other and it fills out everything. With Olivier being in the band, he’s someone we’re delighted to get to work with. He’s a great guy, great bass player and I think everyone is quite content right now with how we sound. We had some people, contributors, help us on the new record with ambient stuff.
E&D: In terms of lyrical direction, was this a direct progression of the themes that were on, say, Anthropocene. . .?
JE: If you look at some of the songs, it’s conceptual in the way that the story continues and the songs point to that but it’s not every song that refers back to that main part of the concept. There are a few that deviate and it’s more like post-humanity but in the sense that Travis is speaking to humanity as if they were still alive. “Here’s what you did wrong.” Here’s how the world is post-humanity. It’s validation. See how fucked up this is? There are a few others tied directly to that concept.
E&D: Do you think the band comes from a place of hopelessness, or exasperation?
JE: Exasperation, yeah, absolutely. All we want is awareness. We’re putting out stuff that seems very exasperated and. . . I don’t want to say hopeless, but they’re at the end of their rope. Musically and in lyrical themes, that’s what we put out – I don’t know if it translates, if people get that when they are listening or reading lyrics but it’s definitely a backs-at-the-wall, sword-to-the-throat kind of deal.
E&D: Do you feel that extreme metal has a place for trying to prompt social change?
JE: Well, I think we picked a really bad genre for it! Mostly, we’re putting information out there and people can take what they want from it. There are certainly people who downplay what we’re saying. “Oh, it’s not that bad! Here we go again.” The way Travis writes lyrics and puts it out there, it’s not just blatant preaching or hitting people over the head with the same sloganeering. People know what we’re about but there are plenty of ways to say it without retreating into the same tried-and-true stuff.
E&D: It’s always been hard to pin you down to a particular genre, or even to a notion of genre. When did you notice that starting to be reflected in your writing and in the audiences you receive?
JE: It’s always been like that throughout the band’s history. Say, the first three records were very much based upon members at the time, what their influences were – Carcass, Suffocation, Cryptopsy. When the guys started the band, back in ’96, it was more powerviolence, abrasive grind and hardcore but they were listening to death metal. They wanted to be a death metal band. So, Human Jerky and Homovore were the basic, more grindy ones and Humanure was the more refined one of this kind of stuff. After that, we started to try and play with things more. Each member of the band has their own style and we weren’t necessarily trying to hold that back in the past, we just didn’t feel as comfortable in expressing that wider range of influences. Karma.Bloody.Karma, there was a lot of experimentation, almost our most experimental record, and that was like the training wheels version of what we were trying to do. It was a good learning process for us because, at least in my opinion, it gave us a lesson in self-editing. Yeah, we want to beat people over the head with the aggressiveness of this but it doesn’t mean everything should be eight minutes long. There are some good songs on that record but I think it was more a learning process for us. Here’s what we want to be but here’s a way to do it better. On Harvest Floor, that I think is our most traditionally brutal technical record – it had experimentation, though it was dialled back. We didn’t want to go off the deep end as we had on the previous two records but just, songs. With Monolith. . . now we thought we can do all the super-notey technical stuff but still have riffs and staying power. We’re never going to out-this-or-that with all these other bands, so let’s just hit our forte as a band. So, that established what we could do and refined certain elements that we wanted to hear more of. Anthropocene. . . was a little darker, more foreboding. This one, Death Atlas, is where we were really wanting to get to with Monolith. I think it’s a fully established style now but now the pressure’s on for the next record, to not make it too samey, like, “Oh hey, they have their formula now, let’s run it into the ground.” We’re really going to have to reflect and put something out there that’s going to make us happy individually without retreading old ground. We’ve already discussed trying to get together next time we’re home and throw around some ideas but some are some are thinking, “We just finished recording this one!”
E&D: I guess with how long you’ve been around now, you can probably be classed as veterans. How does that sit with you?
JE: I think about when we were starting to tour heavily. At that time, I was in my late 20s and I was looking at bands like Deicide, and they were the same age as we are now. It’s scary. I just turned 44. I’ve been in bands since I was 15 and I’ve been touring since I was 19. That contributes to veteran status but I don’t think anyone truly feels like they’re at that kind of place. There’s experience but there’s also the knowledge, the whole package, and I feel like I’m always learning stuff. That label seems to imply a lot more than I can offer. I go through the motions, I know how to approach things but at the same time it’s not quite everything. I’ve learned enough that I won’t give myself too much trouble but the veteran thing, that’s more existential.
Header Photo: Demelza Kingston